Premium Pet Food: Is it Worth it?

LAST UPDATED January 2024

This article is written by Pet Circle veterinarian, Dr Teagan Lever BVSc (Hons)

When supermarket shelves are offering us cheap and convenient pet food options, it's no surprise that most pet owners have asked themselves "Are premium pet foods really worth the cost?"

Most of us would agree that good nutrition is important to health - both for us and our pets. But how do you quantify 'good' when it comes to pet food? In a nutshell, there is more to determining the true value of a pet food than simply looking at cost per kilogram.

The Benefits of Premium Pet Food

1. True value. Premium pet foods are highly digestible, and are often more nutrient dense, which means you may actually need to feed less. This is where cost per feed comes in.

2. Poop factor. Higher digestibility also means your pet is able to extract greater quantities of nutrients from the food, and less waste is expelled, which means fewer landmines in the backyard!

3. Health targeted nutrition. Premium pet foods are usually tailored to suit your pet's lifestage, and size or age and can also address common health concerns like weight, urinary health and dental care.

4. Extra benefits. They often contain beneficial nutrients above and beyond the bare minimum e.g. omega fatty acids for skin and coat health, antioxidants for immune support and joint support nutrients for improved mobility.

5. Trustworthy. Many premium brands can back their product claims with scientific evidence to prove how they support your pet's health and wellbeing.

While the vast majority of foods on those supermarket shelves will be complete and balanced enough to keep your pet alive, premium pet foods can nourish them with added beneficial ingredients so that they thrive. Feeding your pet a premium quality diet is one thing that you can do every day to take care of your pet's health, the true value of which is difficult to quantify in monetary terms.

Our Premium Pet Food Picks

So is grain free better? Should your cat go vegan? Once you start to look into the world of pet food, it can be difficult to know what is best. In an effort to get to the bottom of these questions and more we've put together this user friendly guide to help you find the best food for your pet.

What does 'Complete and Balanced' actually mean?

When buying a bag of dog or cat food that is going to make up the bulk of your pet's diet, how do you know that it will provide all the nutrition that your furry family member needs?

There are international guidelines set out for pet food manufacturers which detail minimum levels of nutrients for each lifestage. The most widely used guidelines are those set out by AAFCO (which stands for Association of American Feed Control Officials). It's important to note that these are guidelines only, and usually only detail 'minimum' requirements. If a food contains too much of a nutrient, it may still qualify as 'meeting standards', but may in fact provide your dog with excessive levels of particular nutrients which can cause health problems and obesity over time.

Rather than simply meeting AAFCO requirements, many higher-end premium pet food brands conduct laboratory analyses and feeding studies to determine the optimum levels of nutrients in their food, as well as regular batch testing to ensure consistency. (So, it's not just the high quality food you pay a little more for - it's the extra attention to safety standards too!)

You can check whether your pet's food is considered complete and balanced, and how this was determined (ie. through a feeding trial or by meeting guidelines) by looking for an AAFCO statement on the product packaging. Although pet foods manufactured and sold outside of the United States are not required to provide an AAFCO statement, major manufacturers worldwide, including in Australia, use the AAFCO nutritional recommendations as part of their standards for nutritional adequacy and will often include a statement.

What's in a name?

The Pet Food Industry Association of Australia (PFIAA) sets standards based on AAFCO guidelines for the naming of pet food products.

The 95% rule

For a product to be named after a certain ingredient or combination of ingredients those ingredients must make up at least 70% of the total product by weight, and at least 95% of the product by weight when water is removed. When two or more ingredients are specified, neither can be less than 3% of the total product weight.

For example, a dog food named 'Chicken and Rice', must contain at least 95% chicken and rice, not counting water, there must be more chicken than rice in the recipe (because it's listed first), and there cannot be less than 3% of either chicken or rice in the total product weight.

The 25% rule

For products labelled with descriptors, e.g. 'Beef Entree' or 'Chicken Dinner', there must not be less than 10% of the named ingredient by weight and 25% by weight not including added water.

The 'with' rule

For products labelled as 'with' an ingredient, e.g. 'Ocean Feast with Salmon' there must not be less than 3% of the named ingredient included. If two ingredients are listed, e.g. 'Homestyle casserole with beef and pasta', the 3% rule applies to each ingredient.

The 'flavour' rule

If a product is labelled as a particular flavour, e.g. 'Beef flavour', it only has to contain a listed ingredient (in any quantity) that provides the described flavour.

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Ingredients vs Nutrients

As concerned pet parents on the hunt for the best food, it can be easy to be caught up in reading and comparing ingredients lists. It's important to remember that while the quality and type of ingredients used in your pet's food certainly matter, it's the nutrients contained within these ingredients that your pet will use to fuel their body. Think of nutrients such as carbohydrates, proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins, fibre, and water as being like the 'building blocks' of ingredients.

It's impossible to determine the quality of a pet food simply by looking at the ingredients list. We can tell if the food is nutritionally adequate by looking for the AAFCO statement, but an assessment of quality requires a more in-depth look at quality control processes, the consistency of ingredients between batches and the overall digestibility. In short, research the brand you're interested in and ask these questions.

Superfood ingredients

Are superfoods as super as they sound? More and more premium pet foods spruik inclusion of exciting, novel ingredients like blueberries, turmeric and coconut oil. But how much of these ingredients are actually in the food? Similar to human food, ingredients on the nutritional panel are listed in most to least prevalent prior to processing. As very general rule, salt sits at about 1 to 2% of the ingredients in most foods, this means any superfoods listed after it are only going to be there in very small amounts.

High protein diets

You may have noticed that many higher end brands will loudly and proudly announce the protein contents of their food, but is higher protein always better? All animals need quality proteins in their diet to support normal biological functions, and AAFCO does specify minimum requirements based on species and lifestage. Protein is calorie dense, which means that rather than causing your pet to build more muscle, excess protein in the diet is more likely to contribute to weight gain. High protein diets can also be detrimental for dogs and cats who have liver or kidney problems as the body has reduced capacity to metabolise and excrete protein breakdown products.

A note about vague ingredients

While ingredients listings don't provide us with a measure of the nutrient content of the food, they can provide some insight into its potential quality. As a method of cost-cutting, many cheaper pet food brands opportunistically source ingredients based on availability at the time of manufacture. On the other hand, high quality pet foods always stick to the same recipe, with the same quantity of each ingredient. This makes for an honest recipe with no surprises, and is particularly important for dogs with food allergies.

Common examples of vague terms found in ingredient lists include 'meat and their by-products', 'cereals and their by-products', 'vegetables', and that ever confusing term 'and/or'. If you see these words in an ingredient list, you can almost guarantee their recipe is ambiguous and may change opportunistically batch by batch. To compare, ingredients from premium brands tend to name the specific meat, grain or vegetable. You will see words like 'lamb', 'barley', or 'sweet potato', rather than 'meat', 'cereal' or 'vegetable'.

What about meat meal?

This can be a contentious topic. The word 'meal' is not a bad thing - it basically means 'dehydrated meat', and it just implies that the meat protein could be derived from other parts of the animal. However, do keep in mind that 'beef meal' is more specific than 'meat meal', likewise 'chicken meal' compared to 'poultry meal'.

Remember that ingredients are listed in order of most to least prevalent prior to processing, and fresh meat is generally 75% water. This water is lost in the early stages of cooking, meaning that foods made from meat meal can end up being higher in meat protein than those made from fresh meat.

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Natural Pet Foods

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With the popularity of the paleo diet and other 'natural' and 'clean eating' philosophies that have emerged over the last decade or so, it's no wonder that we want to extend the potential benefits of these diets to our pets as well. While they have become extremely popular, what exactly constitutes a 'natural' pet food?

Natural pet foods are defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) as those made from only natural ingredients derived from plant, animal or mined sources with no chemical alterations or synthetic additives, including ingredients like artificial colours, flavours and preservatives.

While many brands that don't market themselves as natural still offer quality nutrition that fits this definition, it's definitely worth noting that some manufacturers of cheaper pet foods still include artificial colours and preservatives in their formulas. Artificial colours are only added to appease pet owners - rest assured your pet doesn't care what colour their food is!

Artificial preservatives to look out for include ethoxyquin, BHA, or BHT. If you prefer to avoid artificial preservatives, look for a recipe that utilises natural alternatives like tocopherols (such as Vitamin E), vitamin C, and rosemary extract. One important point to note is that natural preservatives don't always work for as long as artificial preservatives, so be sure to check the expiry date.

Does this mean that natural is always better? While avoiding artificial colours, flavours and preservatives can only be a good thing, we need to consider the whole package when it comes to choosing a quality pet food. A food may indeed qualify as natural, but this does not necessarily mean it is automatically high in quality and nutritionally sound.

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The Grain Free Movement

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Grain free food for dogs and cats are having a real 'moment', but are they all their cracked up to be?

One big argument put forward proponents of the grain free movement is that as carnivorous animals, grains hold no place in the natural diet for dogs and cats. While cats are obligate carnivores, meaning they must eat meat, there is an argument to say that domestic dogs are omnivores. Dogs have lived alongside humans for thousands of years eating our scraps and cast offs, including meats, vegetables and you guessed it - grains! Again this comes down to the distinction between nutrients and ingredients. Cooked grains such as rice and corn contain valuable nutrients such as proteins and carbohydrates which, believe it or not, are very beneficial and able to be absorbed and utilised by both cats and dogs.

Another argument put forward in favour of grain free diets is that they often manufactured with a holistic focus and can include nutraceutical ingredients and superfoods that could offer additional beneficial nutrients. Although not suitable for use as a blanket hypoallergenic diet, grain free diets may be suitable for dogs with allergies to grain based proteins such as wheat and corn.

So does this mean grain based nutrition is ideal and biologically appropriate for dogs and cats? Not necessarily, but on the flip side it doesn't automatically mean that it is harmful.

When it comes to drawbacks, grain free diets do tend to be more expensive as less cost effective carbohydrate sources such as sweet potato or tapioca flour need to be used to replace the grain (yes dogs and cats do require some carbohydrates in their diet!). Sometimes these alternative carbohydrate sources can less additional beneficial nutrients than their 'grainier' counterparts: for example brown rice is an excellent source of fibre and slow release energy, while tapioca flour provides virtually nothing but carbohydrate and can cause more rapid changes in blood sugar.

Grain free diets are often more energy dense due to reduced levels of fibre and low glycaemic index carbohydrates This means it is important to pay close attention to the recommended feeding amounts to avoid weight gain and obesity, particularly in older and less active pets.

Just recently, veterinary cardiologists are warning about a possible link with grain free diets and a heart condition called dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs1, 2, 3. In some cases, the condition has been linked with a dietary deficiency in the amino acid taurine, which plays a role in the contraction of the heart muscle. More research is needed to determine the exact cause and the role that diet plays in this condition, with the FDA and veterinary nutritionists currently investigating further. For the latest information check out Does Grain Free Dog Food Cause Heart Disease?

The takeaway message here is that while many grain free foods are nutritious and balanced, they are not all created equal. When looking for a grain free food for your pet it is important to critically evaluate the ingredients and nutrients that it provides.

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Raw Feeding

On the face of it, when you picture a wild cat or dog hunting down and consuming whole prey, a raw diet can seem like the best choice, but consider how far removed your Pugalier, Ragdoll cat or French Bulldog is from their wild ancestors. Today's domesticated dogs and cats have lived at our sides for a long time and selective breeding has meant that they now look and behave a lot differently to wild animals.

Raw diets can offer a host of benefits including quality meat based proteins, the addition of potentially beneficial superfood ingredients like green lipped mussel or green tripe and of course highly appealing flavours, but they are not without their risks.

If you're looking to feed your pet a raw food diet, the take home message is to make sure it’s complete and balanced. There are commercial raw food diets available that take out this concern, including ZiwiPeak and K9 Natural. There are also some good websites that take into account what you’re feeding, and suggest a suitable vitamin and mineral supplement to add to achieve a complete and balanced ration.

Recent research4, 5 has shown that raw diets can expose pets and their owners to potentially harmful bacteria such as Listeria, Salmonella and E. Coli. These bacteria usually cause gastrointestinal disease such as gastroenteritis, but can also cause more serious and life threatening complications, particularly for people and pets who may have reduced immunity due to age or other medical reasons. There is also some research to suggest that raw meat diets reduce the bacterial diversity in the gut, leading to an unstable microbiome. The important role gut microflora plays in terms of our overall health is an emerging field of research. To find out more, check out Raw Food Safety.

When looking for a raw diet for your pet, be sure to check that it is complete and balanced, ideally formulated by a certified animal nutritionist or veterinarian. If you do choose to feed your pet a raw diet, pay close attention to hand and kitchen hygiene. If your pet has a medical condition, is taking long term medication or is undergoing chemotherapy treatment check with your veterinarian before feeding them a raw meat diet.

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Vegetarian and Vegan Pet Foods

Many people choose a vegan and vegetarian lifestyle for a variety of factors including ethical and spiritual beliefs. While dogs as omnivores can theoretically survive on a vegan or vegetarian diet, it's important to remember that cats are obligate carnivores and need specific proteins that only occur naturally in meats. Due to this essential dietary requirement, vegan or vegetarian diets are not recommended for any cat.

Some commercial vegan and vegetarian pet foods have substituted required meat proteins with synthetic alternatives however there is not enough conclusive data from long term studies to confirm if the nutritional benefits from these diets are adequate. If you are considering a vegan or vegetarian diet for your pet, it is strongly recommended that you seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian prior to changing your pet's diet.

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Food Allergies

Food allergies are one of the itchiest conditions known to dogs and cats. While true food allergies are still quite rare in our pets, with flea allergies and atopic dermatitis (airborne allergies) far more common, they are one of the few skin conditions that can be managed with diet alone.

In true cases of food allergy, contrary to popular belief it's usually the meat protein source that causes the reaction rather than other ingredients such as grains, preservatives or flavours. In affected animals, the protein within the food is recognised by the immune system as a foreign invader that needs attacking. This internal battle results in inflammation that can appear as itchy skin, ear infections, vomiting, diarrhoea and frequent bowel movements.

The diagnosis of a food allergy involves a strict elimination diet for a minimum of 6 weeks, followed by the demonstration of a recurrence of symptoms when the original diet is reintroduced. To diagnose a food allergy, your veterinarian may suggest feeding a therapeutic veterinary diet. The protein source in these diets have typically undergone a process called hydrolysation, where the protein is broken down into its component amino acids, significantly reducing the likelihood of an immune reaction. In some cases, feeding a novel (new) protein diet or a home-cooked diet might be suitable so it's important to consult your veterinarian to determine the most appropriate diet for your pet.

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Therapeutic Veterinary Diets

If you have ever owned a pet with a chronic health condition, you've probably come across therapeutic veterinary diets already. These highly specialised foods are designed to help manage or treat specific health conditions such as osteoarthritis, obesity, urinary crystals, diabetes, kidney failure and more.

Therapeutic veterinary diets are backed heavily by scientific research and offer extensive proof of their claims. They are also produced under much more stringent quality control conditions to ensure the consistency, safety and efficacy of each bag, can or sachet of the end product. These higher standards and the costs of research and development means that therapeutic diets are some of the most expensive in the premium food category. While these costs are real, it is important to consider that these foods do deliver proven results which can improve your pet's quality and length of life as well as potentially reducing the amount of medication or supplements they may require.

Therapeutic Veterinary Diet Brands

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Breed Specific Diets

When you think about it, it's not surprising that the ideal diet for a 3 kilogram Chihuahua could be very different than one for an 80 kilogram Great Dane. Different breeds and sizes of pets can be predisposed to particular health conditions; for instance smaller breed dogs tend to suffer more from bladder stones and crystals, while large breeds can develop osteoarthritis much earlier in life than their pint sized counterparts.

Breed and size specific diets often have different sized or shaped kibble to suit individual breed and size preference, plus they offer nutrition that has been tailored towards commonly occurring conditions or problems. As an example large breed diets can include additional nutraceuticals such as fish oil or glucosamine and chondroitin to support joint health, while small breed diets may be formulated to help further reduce the risk of bladder stones and crystals.

When evaluating a breed or size specific diet, look for the additional benefits that it could offer your pet. Ideally see if the product details specific levels of any additional beneficial ingredients and check that it is complete and balanced.

Our Breed Specific Diet Picks

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Country of Origin

While it shouldn't be used as a black-and-white rule for judging the quality of a pet food, it can be useful to check the place of manufacture.

Australia's import and quarantine process is well-known for being stringent, slow and heavily policed. This means that if a pet food had to be imported, it may have sat in transit for a longer period of time than another which is locally made. An Australian made product is likely to reach your pet's bowl sooner than one that is made overseas, so it may be 'fresher' and more appealing to your pet than an imported product.

View our Guide to Australian-Made Pet Food Brands.

Our Australian Made Pet Food Picks

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How to choose the best pet food

Comparing pet foods can be a tricky business, particularly when you are faced with clever marketing techniques and complicated looking ingredients listings. So how do you choose the best pet food?

First off, it pays to think critically and evaluate claims made by pet food manufacturers based on the evidence they are able to provide. Try not to be lured in by words such as 'holistic', 'natural' or even premium, but look at the actual product on offer.

When choosing a diet for your pet, be sure to consider their individual needs such as activity level, age and breed or size. The AAFCO statement on the bag is a good place to start, but a high quality diet should offer benefits far above and beyond simply providing the bare minimum nutritional requirements.

Take into account the brand manufacturing the food, what is their product safety record? Do they have quality control processes in place to assess for toxins and unexpected contaminants? What methods are used to formulate the diet, do they have a veterinary nutritionist or qualified animal nutritionist on staff? How is consistency and quality ensured from batch to batch?

Ready to do your research? Hop on over to our pet food comparison tables to see a breakdown of popular dog and food products.

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The Bottom Line

Chosen correctly, high quality, 'premium' diets can be a simple and effective way to invest in your pet's health - after all, you feed your pet every day so why not try to maximise the benefits they derive from their nutrition? Don't just feed them, nourish them!

What do the vets feed their pets?

Dr Carla

"I feed my cat a rotation of diets, to help keep things varied with both ingredients and manufacturing brands. It also helps keep her interested as she can get bored with the same thing over and over! Every few days I alternate between Royal Canin Indoor, Advance Dental, Ziwi Canned Food, Feline Natural, and Ivory Coat Dry Cat Food. I also give her plenty of Greenies treats!"

Dr Elise

"I feed my rescue Labrador x Kelpie Hill's therapeutic Diet Derm Complete. Having atopy (airborne allergies) he was so unhappy licking and scratching constantly and even used to keep us up at night with his carry on and headshaking. He lost a lot of hair and turned his skin brown but now he has a lustrous coat and hardly ever needs his oral medication. He is so much happier (and so are we with no more restless nights!)"

Dr Kim

"I feed my cat Oscar Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Urinary S/O, a therapeutic urinary diet, as he was diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening urinary tract obstruction. He is fed the canned version to help increase his water intake, and dilute the crystals and help prevent them from causing him future problems!"

Dr Teagan

"I feed my English staffies, Jatz and Lando, Royal Canin Medium Adult because I really see the difference that the high fish oil content makes to their skin and coat condition. I've also found that this food makes their stools smaller, firmer and less smelly than other brands I've tried."